The sexiness of ambient sound design: How inFamous: Second Son leverages next-generation audio
Brad Meyer is the audio director on inFAMOUS: Second Son, and he’s excited about the possibilities that the next-generation systems offer developers. We don’t often talk about sound when we fantasize about what the extra CPU, GPU, and RAM will do for game development, but Meyer took the press through a series of demos about what is now possible in the game’s audio design.
We stood in a small room covered in recording equipment and expensive looking microphones, as he played sounds and explained the complexity of the game’s audio. Including the microphone built into the Dual Shock 4.
He also admitted that this was a trick we’ve seen before, but the PlayStation 4 will do it better. “It is ridiculously higher quality than the Wii one was, this is basically the same speaker that is in the Vita, so it’s near CD quality,” Meyer explained. “It’s clearer than the arrows and fishing they had on the Wii.”
Next-generation sound, not just graphics
Sucker Punch relied on sound effects libraries for the sounds in the previous inFAMOUS titles, but the sound effects in Second Son were recorded by the team itself, and each effect is made up of multiple layers, all mixed together to create audio with much more character than previous games.
Meyer walked us through the creation of the sound that plays when you throw smoke from your fingertips in the game. How did they create the effect?
They rubbed two pieces of charcoal against each other, added charcoal burning in a metal chimney, added the sound of pouring water onto burning charcoal, then rubbed two different pieces of charcoal together, dropped charcoal on charcoal, crushed charcoal in a mortar and pestle, put the sound of someone blowing air through a tube, mixed it all down, and there you go: A brand-new, thick and unique sound that you’ve never heard before. The sound pops and cracks and sounds mean.
“We’re getting way more detail, because it’s next-gen, we have more memory,” he explained. “Each one of these is now made up of smaller components, where something might have been five sounds before, now it’s five combinations of five sounds. There’s a lot more variety in the sound and a lot more randomization.”
This is what you get moving from 512MB of RAM to 8GB. “It takes a lot more memory,” Meyer said. “We’re using almost three times as much memory as we did on inFAMOUS 2. The system is way more powerful, it’s just about taking advantage of all that.”
The past inFAMOUS games featured loops of pre-recorded ambient sounds that played continuously in the background. It didn’t sound bad, but it didn’t do much to make the world feel lively.
“It got pretty repetitive,” Meyer said. “We’ve actually thrown out loops completely in Second Son, and what we’re doing is every single object in the game can have emitters in them.”
So the birds you hear in the game are local birds that were recorded in Seattle. Those sounds are then put in emitters in the trees, so you’ll hear the birds as if they are three-dimensional objects in the game.
When you’re surrounded by trees, you’ll hear the birds all around you. When you walk away, the birds will be behind you, and then slowly trail off. “Even shit like, [the sound designer] went a little crazy with his research, and determined that robins are more frequent at night, so they’re louder at night. Silly details, shit like that people aren’t going to notice, but it definitely makes the world a bit more developed,” Meyer said.
The same thing was done with rain. Every tree is emitting the sound of rain, but the emitters in fabric umbrellas sound like rain hitting a fabric surface. You can stand under a skylight and hear the rain hit the surface of the skylight. Each surface has a different sound when the rain hits it, and you’ll hear it all as you walk around the world. You’ll hear the plinking sounds of metal surfaces as you walk under them. No more loops, now the world is a living thing, filled with a mixture of different sounds that shift and change as you explore your environment.
I asked if it hurt Meyers’ soul when people play his games using their stock television speakers.
“It’s unfortunate, but we’ve got something built in here so it will change the dynamic range based on the speakers you’re using,” he said. “So if you’re using TV speakers, or headphones, or decent desktop speakers but not a surround system we’ll actually be changing the dynamic range so, basically the shittier the speakers, the less dynamic range.”
“What that means is everything will be audible, it just won’t sound as wide and beautiful,” he continued.
I’m looking forward to hearing the game in my home when it launches, and it’s hard to get a sense for how things sound when you’re in the developer’s own sound booth, but the game does come alive when you walk around Sucker Punch’s version of Seattle with a good set of surround sound speaker. When you get excited about next-generation consoles, and they’re coming up soon, think about how that extra power will be used in audio, and not just graphics.
And for the love of God, don’t just use your television speakers.